I had the chance to meet and chat with Eisa Jocson in person — she was in Singapore creating and rehearsing an ensemble piece with the dance students of LASALLE College of the Arts.
One of the wonderful things, I think, of being a dancer/dance artist, is the very direct way in which we share artistic practices. Students of arts institutions regularly have the chance to work with exciting choreographers, embodying their ideas while learning new ways of thinking about themselves and about dance. This continues into professional life, making dance a particularly charged field for thinking about human relations, amongst other things.
I started off by asking Eisa Jocson what she values most as a choreographer. For her, integrity is key — not just in general, in terms of how she functions in the collaborative process or takes care of all aspects of the executing the creative work — but also in terms of following through on a core question. She spoke about getting lost in the process and getting excited by new materials, but how she reflects and listens to the work she is doing is deeply disciplined — everything in the work must connect to the initial investigation, her central question. We discussed the process of refining what this question might be — for instance, when she first embarked on the creation of “Princess”, her question was “how do I perform happiness?” But one question shoots off multiple others, research is non-linear, and new insights and dimensions are found. Indeed, creative practice and the way the human mind is able to composite and consolidate ideas remains wonderfully flexible. Therefore for an artist like Jocson, integrity must underpin the entire process. Are the new directions taking the choreography deeper? Is the production budget aligned with the scale of the work? Are the new questions arising from her research disturbing or distilling her purpose? And sometimes, having integrity means letting the work go — stepping aside, resting, and digesting. These points, surely, are true not only of the process of choreography but life itself.
In Jocson’s work, the connection between the work of a dance artist, and the life of a dance artist, remain very strong. Unlike some choreographers who prefer not to discuss or tackle political ideas, or personal life choices, Eisa flowed freely between talking about art to talking about family influence and political systems. Choreography appears to be how she brings together these thoughts into a new form — in dance, through bodies — each piece motivated by an initial question, leading to new ones. In “Princess” for instance, she began digging into asking what standards of happiness there were, what ideologies existed; and this led to her examination of Disney’s very first movie made entirely from animation — Snow White. I did not know, for instance, that Snow White was the archetype for subsequent princesses, and that the Disney ideology of femininity (which would have had a tremendous impact on people all around the world) had this princess doing a lot of domestic work. Her movement vocabulary in the film was largely composed of cleaning the house. As a Filipina, the connection to domestic work became a pressing point — what leads to the flow of Filipino women out of their nation, and into domestic service? Further, as a performing artist, Eisa Jocson noted that highly skilled artists from her country are regularly employed in Disneyland and on cruise ships, to provide the service of performing happiness. “What makes the Filipino body ideal for entertainment service work, internationally?” In following the question “what is the image of happiness”, a line is drawn between the Disney (middle-class, American, Hollywood) ideology and the formatting of her own body as someone who grew up in the Philippines. For me, the connection she has made between Disney and the international Filipino service worker, provokes questions like: how did we get here? Who gets to be happy, and who gets to perform being happy? For Eisa, the conditions and systems have informed and formatted the choices of individuals, not just for artists like herself but for the public, for politicians, for consumers, for those who choose to migrate outwards.
For a moment, we discussed arts education systems — still, in arts institutions around the world, most basics of artistic techniques come from Western canons, rather than from diverse places, thus leaving an indelible mark on the artistic landscapes of postcolonial nations. The cultural products that result, then, seem forced to engage with modern colonial history and its deep-seated systemic impact.
On the flip side, when people migrate outward, for instance, to work in Disneyland after working in the top dance companies at home, it points at individual resourcefulness. And while Jocson’s work telescopes outward to think about systems, she also focuses on the individuals’ agency to make choices and to advocate for themselves.
When I asked Jocson if she thinks about herself as challenging stereotypes about Filipinos, she replied, “Not only that.” Though her context is particular, the dimensions of her work focus primarily on how bodies have the agency and capacity to mutate, and are “malleable to survive”, that our bodies are an “empty vessel that you take, a form that you take during a lifetime, and within the condition that your body is placed in, essentially we all face the same things”.
For those who have seen Jocson’s work before, she shared that her new work is always a conversation with the old. And for us this year, we have the unusual chance to catch two works by this choreographer — Princess (2017), her first duet work with Filipino performance artist Russ Ligtas, and an ensemble piece for LASALLE’S students, both as part of her research for Happyland.
When artists work with students, then, not only are new choreographies possible, but the artist, the student, the school, and a wider audience, participates in shifting the cultural landscape for future generations.
Catch Eisa Jocson in Princess at da:ns festival 11&12 October.
This post is sponsored by Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay.